How Archaeologists and Geomorphologists Can Work Together to Understand the Quaternary

Rachel Quist


Interdisciplinary collaboration is widely talked about but in reality it is not really implemented on a large scale.  This is especially true in the realm of environmental compliance that geographers, geologists, and archaeologists often find themselves working in.  Even in the world of academia, few professors take advantage of the human knowledge outside of their own department or professional field.

When collaboration does occur it often leads to some surprising and fascinating results.  One of the subject areas that are full of possibilities is the study of the Late Quaternary. 

This period of time still has many unanswered questions regarding paleoclimate and the multiple migrations of people into the Americas.  Archaeologists and geomorphologists are some of the best suited professions for interdisciplinary research into the Late Quaternary period.

How archaeologists can help geomorphologists:

Archaeologists and geomorphologists are both intensely interested in soil, especially the formation of relatively young soils and disturbed soils.  It is the disturbed soils that are likely the most areas for opportunities. 

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In archaeological context, disturbed soils are evidence of past human behavior and those disturbed soils often are well dated archaeological deposits.  If these well dated deposits are also capped by undisturbed soils then a limiting older date on these relatively young and undisturbed soils can be easily obtained from the archaeological context. 

An example of this type of study is the soils that buried the pithouses and fish weirs in the Salton Sea area of California.

This photo from the International Space Station shows the location of Salton Sea between Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Image; NASA, June 12, 2002
This photo from the International Space Station shows the location of Salton Sea between Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Image; NASA, June 12, 2002

Natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis are another area where the archaeological record can give historical information and perspective.  In studies of active tectonics, archaeological data can be used to date fault offset and springs located along fault lines.

Zooarchaeological and botanical studies in an archaeological context can also help provide important data on past climates.  Certain plant and animal species are indicators of climate change and their appearance in an archaeological context, especially one that is well dated, can indicate changes in global and micro climates. 

One of the best examples of this type of research is the presence and eventual disappearance of Pleistocene megafauna at the end of the last Ice Age.

How geomorphologists can help archaeologists:

Geomorphologists can be an invaluable asset to archaeological investigations.  At the most basic level, geomorphologists can assist archaeologists in understanding the soils and the stratigraphic context and to help in properly interpret the laboratory results. 

Geomorphologists are experts in landscape responses to environmental change and can provide information about the past climate record which can provide insight into past human reactions to climate change or how humans may have been a causal factor in  ecological collapse.

Geomorphologists can also assist archaeologists and other heritage resource managers in understanding how natural disasters can affect cultural resources, including archaeological deposits. 

The effects of hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes are all recorded in the geomorphological record and the patterns preserved in this record can help emergency officials and managers prepare for natural disasters.

Probably the most valuable assistance that geomorphologists can provide to archaeologists is information about archaeological site formation processes.  Teasing out the difference between natural and cultural formation processes is one of the most difficult tasks for archaeologists. Most archaeologists only have one college class in soils or geology and can generally benefit from assistance in this realm.

Bioturbation, vegetation growth, normal decay, and naturally caused wildfires can all appear to be cultural in origin but with the trained eye of a geomorpholoigst these can be accurately divided into naturally caused formation processes and those that are a result of human activity.  Differentiating between naturally and culturally caused processes is key in archaeological research as attributing past human behavior to something that was not caused by humans is incredibly problematic.

An example of interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists and geomorphologists

Interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists and geomorphologists is not a new idea but it is one that has been rarely implemented.  One notable historic example was in the 1950s; the collaboration between Dr. Jesse D. Jennings, a prominent archaeologist with the University of Utah and Dr. Donald R. Curry, a newly hired geomorphologist in the University of Utah’s Department of Geography. 

Jennings and Curry collaborated on interpreting the data from the archaeological excavations of Jukebox Cave and Danger Cave, a National Historic Landmark located in western Utah and one of the first archaeological sites to have radiocarbon dating used on the recovered organics.

Their research showed that at the terminal Pleistocene the area was likely a marsh system and much cooler and wetter than the dry desert of today.  Curry was able to provide a fundamental understanding of the soils and how they were formed as well as their place in time; for example, Curry was able to determine that some of the sediment layers were deposited prior to the eruption of Mount Mazama and the deposition of the Mazama Ash layer, approximately 6.800 years ago. 

In a time when radiocarbon dating was a new method, the determination of human activity in the cave prior to the Mazama incident was critical to understanding the basic chronology and encouraging further investigation into the Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene Transition.

Interdisciplinary collaboration between geomorphologists and archaeologist is worthwhile and produces a number of astounding results and avenues for new research.


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About the author
Rachel Quist
Rachel Quist is an archaeologist working in the Great Basin of the Western United States.She has specific expertise in cultural resource management, prehistoric technology, lithic toolstone, procurement, geomorphology of the Bonneville Basin, and public history projects. She may be contacted through her website at